Thursday, November 15, 2012

Interview: Dave Koltai of Pigtronix

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Dave Koltai from Pigtronix to get some background on how he got started, find out who's using Pigtronix effects, and to learn what's coming next.

P90Noir: How long have you been building?

Dave Koltai: I’ve been building since 2001. A college friend got me started. He built an envelope controlled phase shifter from the seminal Craig Anderton book, “Electronics Projects for Musicians.” I loved the sound of this design and asked him to build another one for me. His nickname was “Pigpen.” While Pigpen was constructing the second envelope phase unit for me, I built an optical compressor from the same book, learning how to solder, and all about the various componentry as I went along. This second envelope phase shifter was housed in a 2-space rack, with relay based remote switching and it never worked properly, so eventually, I had to take it all apart and then put it back together. This rather challenging experience was my first taste of modifying, debugging, and trouble-shooting a complex analog design.

The experience with the Anderton designed phase shifter got me all fired up to discover more about building analog pedals. I began researching gear online and used the wonderful resources at and built many different musical effect projects. Guided by the GGG website and my good friend, Verne Andru, I began modifying the classic designs to meet my own needs. Eventually I had constructed a whole stable of mutant clones and was playing through this massive pedal board of un-labeled aluminum boxes. I was passionate about making a career in music and had found something that was great fun, and seemed to be my calling. The rest is history.

P90Noir: Do you have a formal training in electrical engineering?

DK: I hold a BA in Music from Middlebury College in Vermont. I do not have an electrical engineering degree. I do, however, have an informal training in musical electronics, that has come from working with Howard Davis. Howard Davis designed the Deluxe Memory Man, Deluxe Electric Mistress, PolyChorus, and many other amazing Electro Harmonix products from their heyday in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He’s been my mentor as a designer and has been Pigtronix chief engineer since 2005. Howard is a truly rare talent in that he creates original circuits from scratch. Howard is absolutely brilliant and can tackle the most complex design challenges, always bringing some unique twist to the project.

P90Noir: So where does the design impetus come from?

DK: My role is at the crossroads of engineering and musicianship. It’s my job that say we need to make “x, y, or z” and then challenge Howard to design it. As a professional guitarist, I’m the guy with the ear for tone and a sense of what is out there and what people want to buy. I know what’s been made and where the unfulfilled sonic niches are left waiting to be explored. Pigtronix is all about finding undiscovered territory and creating unique products that haven’t yet been brought to market. I’ve always wanted to make stuff that stands out and addresses unmet needs of musicians. I’ll leave the nostalgia, retro worship and blatant cloning to others.
The design process is one in which Howard and I work together over a period of months (or often times years) to create a product that meets the standards necessary for production. Some of the best examples of our collaboration in design are the amazingly fast and accurate pitch tracking of the Mothership Synth, the unrivaled sustain of the Philosopher’s Stone and the low-noise, high gain sounds of the Disnortion pedal. Our goal is to get the most performance from a minimum number of parts. Our skills together make a great combination. To succeed in the type of projects we tackle you need a creative engineer and musician with a well-developed and informed ear.
P90Noir: Which designs are you most proud of?

DK: All of them! To me, they are all outstanding accomplishments. As far as production volume goes, the Philosopher’s Tone has sold the most pedals to date. That effect has been adopted by many of my musical heroes. The Echolution is mypersonal favorite to use. That one is an artistic pedal which really takes the concept of a full featured delay to an extreme. It’s my “desert island pedal.” Of all our distortion boxes, I lean on the FAT Drive and Aria pedal the most– those two units are my core sound as a player.

P90Noir: What’s behind the FAT drive?

DK: CMOS (Complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) – is the answer. CMOS is intended for use a in digital logic circuits, but you can ram analog audio through it to get amp-like tube sound overdrive.

P90Noir: Is the FAT Drive circuit the same as the overdrive in the Disnortion?

DK: They are similar. The Disnortion has little more bass and a little less gain, the low-end has been trimmed on the FAT Drive so that the midrange is emphasized. Most of our pedals work for bass, guitar, synths, drums or anything else. The FAT is the only one that’s really meant primarily for guitar. For the record, the FAT Drive is not even remotely related to a Tube Screamer or any other overdrive pedal for that matter. It is a unique design that represents the essence of Pigtronix, which is why we call it the FAT Drive. That pedal achieves my principal goal of being responsive to the touch of the player, letting their dynamics and touch shine through a massive wave of distortion.

P90Noir: Who’s touring and/or recording with the FAT?

DK: Brad Whitford & Joe Perry of Aerosmith tour with the FAT Drive. DweezilZappa uses it in his current live rig. David Hidalgo, Louis Perez and Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos all use the FAT Drive in their pedal boards. A lot of the time, I find out about major artists using our gear from pictures on the internet or rig rundowns in guitar magazines. It is always thrilling to know that major rockstars are BUYING my gear.
P90Noir: Can you point to specific song where someone is using one of your pedals?

DK:Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith. That is Brad’s big solo when they play live and I know he is rocking the FAT Drive or Disnortion on this tune. You can hear the Mothership, when Juan Alderete from Mars Volta is shaking a stadium with sub-octaves. Richard Fortus of Guns and Roses – his main delay is the Echolution, and you hear that in most of his solos live with GnR. Josh Klinghoffer in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has a Polysaturator on his board, but I have no idea what tunes he’s using it on. Andy Summers of the Police used the Philosopher’s Tone on “Walking on the Moon” during their last tour.

P90Noir: What do you listen to and does it impact your designs?

DK: I listen to everything. From classical music to psych rock. I love jazz, particularly Miles Davis’s classic quintets from the 50’s and 60’s. I’m a huge fan of Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, SRV, the Who, the Police and Aerosmith. In short, I am influenced by Debussy and Beethoven as much as Bob Marley and Peter Gabriel.

As for my background, I used to perform with Kurtis Blow in a hip-hop gospel group that played weekly in the South Bronx. In that gig, I was playing with guys who were way out of my league, which is always the best possible situation to be in as it will force you to either get better or get fired. I also played Soukous and Afro Beat music with cats from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana for several years before Pigtronix got so busy that I had to take a break from regular gigging. Now I am back to playing gigs in an all original project called the Dynamics. I try to bring all of my musical experiences to the table when designing a pedal.

P90Noir: Getting back to the Disnortion, what are the secrets inside of that pedal? What’s the fuzz based on? Is the Octava similar to the Tycobrahe Octavia?

DK: The fuzz is an opamp fuzz. It is Howard’s own design and not based on previous examples. For the Octava, we developed a totally original circuit that was “inspired” by the Dan Armstrong Green Ringer but uses a method of frequency doubling which results in an effect that can handle both chords and single note lines quite well. Most importantly, the Octava circuit is placed in series before the parallel Fuzz and Overdrive sections of the Disnortion. In the original Roger Mayer and Tycobrahe Octavia designs, the fuzz comes first followed by the octave doubler. In our Disnortion, the Octava portion comes first, followed by the distortion sections.

P90Noir: How did you get the idea to do parallel distortion circuits in the Disnortion pedal?

DK: It’s obvious. It’s just a good idea. You get massive distortion and gain without the noise. Its like using two amps, two mics or simply double tracking your guitar, inside a pedal. I am aware of only one other pedal on the market that does this. I am SURE there will be more in the future.

P90Noir: What’s on the horizon Pigtronix?

DK: The Infinity Looper is coming next. It’s the first of some very ambitious pedals that we’ve been working on. It’s a microSD card based looper pedal that records at 24bit / 48khz with tremendous headroom, zero latency and features discreet analog limiting on the front end as well as all analog pass-through. It’s easy to operate, yet tremendously powerful and flexible.
The Infinity’s unique “SYNC MULTI” mode provides a multiplier function allowing the length of Loop 2 to be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 6 times the length of Loop 1. The loops can also be run out of sync or even in SERIES, for verse / chorus song structures. Ninja style input split mode assigns Input 1 to Loop 1 and Input 2 to Loop 2, effectively allowing performers to record and overdub separate instruments on separate loops, into isolated amps, simultaneously.
The Pigtronix Infinity also provides a long awaited AUX Loop output intended to send looped audio to stage monitors. This is especially helpful for drummers to hear and stay in time.

P90Noir: It seems like the original Pigtronix stuff is really complex and the new stuff is simple. I mean the Philosopher’s Rock has two knobs and a switch… Why the shift?

DK: Clearly, we’re moving towards a more stream-lined approach. As I’ve gotten better at designing circuits, I’ve come to a point where the challenge is to distill the best elements of a design and put most of the decision making inside the enclosure rather than bringing every parameter out front. By expanding our line to include more simple pedals, we’re trying to give musicians options of how fancy they want to get with their Pigtronix effects, – from the two-knob Philosopher’s Rock to the eight-knob Philosopher King.
Eventually, I want to move into programmable analog designs. Pigtronix is for the guys that want to make a new sound. You can use our pedals to get classic old-school sounds, but you can also make new, original tones and that is what gets me excited. It is true that we live in a digital world, but I insist that the future can be analog even it requires that Pigs fly!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Interview with Steve Bragg, Empress Effects

I recently sat down with Steve Bragg from Empress Effects to talk about music, gear, robots, and the wonderful world of guitar effects. We discussed how Steve got started building effects, the "secrets" behind some of the great Empress pedals, and what's on the horizon.

P90: How long have you been building pedals and how did you get started?
Steve: I built my first pedal in high school. It was a Tycobrahe Octavia. It didn't work at all. My friends and I also tried to build a robot. We didn't get much further than the power supply. It wasn't a great start in electronics. In university I got my hands on the classic text Art of Electronics, that's when things started to make sense.

P90: Some of your pedals have pretty complex designs. What’s your background?

Steve: I took electrical engineering in university. During that time, I had a bunch of electronic projects on the go. I built a lucid dreaming inducer, which was a crappy version of the Remee (which I can't wait to get in the mail). First I designed it using logic chips on a breadboard, and it was a mess. Then I learned about embedded programming, which simplified things a lot. It also led to later putting a processor in the Empress Tremolo. Using a processor to digitally control analog circuitry makes things really interesting.

P90: The Multidrive is very cool in that it allows fuzz, overdrive, and distortion to be run in parallel. What was the impetus behind that?

Steve: The idea was pretty simple. Running dirt pedals serially kinda sucks. When you distort an already distorted sound, you end up with a mess. Sometimes that's what you want, but a lot of the time you want a thicker distortion that still responds well to your playing. Since the three subcircuits in the Multidrive are in parallel, they are each distorting the clean input. What you get isn't a mess, but a really nice thick distortion tone.

P90: Are the Fuzz, Distortion, and OD based in the Multidrive based on older circuits or are they original designs?

Steve: The subcircuits aren't based on anything directly. Jay designed the overdrive and distortion circuit from scratch. For the fuzz circuit, he employed the common trick of putting clipping diodes in the feedback path of a transistor.

P90: Which of your designs are you most proud of? Why?
Steve: I've been really happy with my current project. It's a reverb pedal that I'm working on with Jay. He's doing most of the sound algorithms, he knows a lot more about reverbs than I do. I'm working more on the architecture of the pedal. When we did the Superdelay, we were just learning how to code in C. The result was a tangled mess, picture the air conditioning systems in the movie Brazil. Trying to find bugs in the Superdelay code was miserable work. Coding the reverb has been a treat. So it's nice knowing that I'm getting better, or that I can completely delude myself into thinking so.

P90: What kind of music do you listen to mostly? Does what you listen to impact the circuits you design and build?

Steve: It's all over the place. Electronic, rock, orchestral, piano music. I used to be a lot more into rock, but I love dancing like an idiot, and nothing makes me embarrass myself like some fun electronic music, like Ratatat or Daft Punk.

As for affecting the products we build, I'm don't think it has much of an effect. I'm the least musical of our Empress team, I stay more within the realm of electronic design. I do have a couple effects that I've wanted to create for a long time that I think would be really cool. Stuff that might not sell well but hopefully helps really creative people push different ideas.

P90: You guys have some pretty big names using your pedals these days. Can you point to any songs where you know someone used an Empress pedal on a specific part?

Steve: There's a song on The Black Keys Brothers album that I'm sure has the Superdelay throughout.

P90: What’s on the horizon for Empress? Any new pedals we should keep an eye out for?

Steve: Ever since we released the Superdelay, we've had a lot of players say "The Superdelay is great, but I spend most of my time in the tape delay setting." So we've taken the tape delay mode from the Superdelay and put it inside its own pedal. Sounds just as good as the one in the Superdelay, but there's a bunch of extra features. The dry signal is all analog, there's presets if you want to use them, you can control the tempo with tap or knob, it's smaller, and uses less current. And it's $250. That's in production right now and should be ready within a month.

Also in production is our buffer and buffer+. Unlike most buffer pedals, these ones are designed specifically to be the input to and output from your pedalboard. So they provide a large input impedance for your guitar, so it doesn't get loaded down, and a low output impedance for your amp. The buffer+ has a bunch of interesting features: a stompswitch activated boost circuit, an input loading circuit to control exactly how much you want to load down your guitar, an noise filter to help with your noisy pedals, and a tuner out. You can also mute your normal output easily when tuning. The buffer pedals should also be ready within a month.

P90: That’s it for me. Do you want to add anything in closing?

Steve: Thanks for all the great questions! I'd just add that if anyone wants to get in touch with me, especially customers with questions about their pedals, they can reach me at